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THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHYvolume cv, no. 3, march 2008

NOBODY NEEDS A THEORY OF ART*It would never have occurred to the painters of Lascaux that they were producing art on those walls. Not unless there were neolithic aestheticians. Arthur Danto


hat is art? More precisely, what makes any item a work of art? The question is probably the most venerable in aesthetics, according to Jerrold Levinson,1 and Monroe Beardsley adds that it is the most vexing.2 In fact, the following answer to the question should be obvious:(R) item x is a work of art if and only if x is a work in activity P and P is one of the arts.

The arts, of course, include music, dance, theater, literature, film, painting, architecture, and the like. Yet (R) has seemed so far from obvious that, until now, nobody has given it a moments thought. The trouble is not that anyone might seriously deny its truth, but rather that they will find it uninformative. After all, the vexing question is pressed upon us by radical changes in art of the avant-garde, and (R) offers no resources to address these changes. With that in mind, here is the case for (R). The challenges posed by the avant-garde are real and they need to be addressed, but the vexing question is the wrong question to address them. It does not follow that the question has no good answer. On the contrary, (R) is all the answer we need, if

* Thanks to audiences at Lewis and Clark College, St. Andrews University, the University of Kent, the University of Leeds, and the University of Lethbridge for helpful suggestions on earlier versions of this paper. 1 Levinson, Defining Art Historically, British Journal of Aesthetics, xix (1979): 23250, here p. 232. 2 Beardsley, Redefining Art, in The Aesthetic Point of View (Ithaca: Cornell, 1982), pp. 298316, here p. 298. 0022-362X/08/0503/10927 2008 The Journal of Philosophy, Inc.







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we do not need an answer that addresses the challenges posed by the avant-garde. Moreover, (R) points to questions that we do need answered. So, not only is it true but, in addition, (R) is as informative as we need.3 i. from kristeller to testadura A theory of art is an answer to the question of what makes an item a work of art. (R) is one such theory among many.4 The case against (R) is that it fails to address the challenges posed by the avant-garde. The case for it is that theories of art are not needed to address the challenges of the avant-garde. However, the case for (R) runs immediately into a road block. The avant-garde is not much older than a century, but the vexed question is venerable, and so is the search for a theory of art. It therefore seems that we expect a theory of art to do more than cope with developments in the last century. Clearing this road block means doing a little history, and the history supplies materials useful in making the case for (R). As far back as 1914, Clive Bell identified the central problem of aesthetics with the search for the quality that distinguishes works of art from all other classes of objects.5 Morris Weitz began his famous attack on Bells project by admitting that theory has been central in aesthetics and is still the preoccupation of the philosophy of art. Its main avowed concern remains the determination of the nature of art which can be formulated into a definition of it (op. cit., p. 27). Responses to Weitz play along, conceding that underlying every traditional aesthetic theory is the essentialist presumption that that the expression Fwork of art_ applies to the entities that it does in virtue of some shared essential property or properties.6

3 This paper deflects the vexed question by defending (R) while taking seriously the challenges of the avant-garde. Others dismiss the vexed question. For example, Kendall Walton, Review of Art and the Aesthetic, by George Dickie, Philosophical Review, lxxxvi (1977): 97101; Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987); and Peter Kivy, Philosophies of Arts (New York: Cambridge, 1997). 4 Notably Morris Weitz, The Role of Theory in Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, xv (1956): 2735; Monroe Beardsley, An Aesthetic Definition of Art, in Hugh Curtler, ed., What Is Art? (New Haven: Yale, 1983), pp. 1529; Arthur Danto, Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge: Harvard, 1981); George Dickie, The Art Circle (New York: Haven, 1984); Levinson, Defining Art Historically; Stephen Davies, Definitions of Art (Ithaca: Cornell, 1991); Berys Gaut, FArt_ as a Cluster Concept, in Noel Carroll, ed., Theories of Art Today (Madison: Wisconsin UP, 2000), pp. 2544; and Gary Iseminger, The Aesthetic Function of Art (Ithaca: Cornell, 2004). 5 Bell, Art (London: Chatto and Windus, 1914), p. 3. 6 Robert Matthews, Traditional Aesthetics Defended, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, xxxviii (1979): 3950, p. 39.

nobody needs a theory of art


A different story is told by Paul Kristeller in his classic study, The Modern System of the Arts.7 According to Kristeller, European texts deploy no concept of art until the eighteenth century. The Greek techne and Latin ars, for instance, refer to all kinds of crafts and sciences. The eighteenth-century innovation is to group some activities apart from others. For the first time in history, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry are grouped (sometimes with decorative art, landscape architecture, dance, theater, or prose literature) and also distinguished from the liberal arts, the practical arts, and the sciences. Fishing, anatomical dissection, poetry, philosophy, football, travel, eating, architecture, fashion, trading, astronomy, dance, painting, plumbing which of these belong together? A grouping is salient for you and me that was not salient for contemporaries of Aristotle and Abelard. Kristeller writes that the various arts are certainly as old as human civilization, but the manner in which we are accustomed to group them and to assign them a place in our scheme of life and of culture is comparatively recent (ibid., p. 45). Kristeller identifies some of the factors that, over the centuries, drove the innovation. While subsequent scholarship challenges some of the details, Kristellers account illustrates the kinds of forces that were in play. The humanists gave poetry top spot over grammar and rhetoric in their new curriculum. Painting, sculpture, and architecture gradually gained prestige from the fourteenth century onwards. A new body of literature in the sixteenth century compared poetry and painting. The seventeenth century saw the founding of the French academies, which sponsored the first treatises on painting, sculpture, and architecture to stand alongside texts on poetics. Contributors to the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns distinguished activities where success depends on accumulated knowledge (science, where the moderns win) from activities where success depends on individual talent (the arts, where the ancients win). Thus the new concept of science helped spur the new concept of art. Finally, the newly-drawn distinction between beauty and moral goodness suggested a domain for each. By the early eighteenth century the problem of the arts was a topic of learned discussion in Paris and by mid-century a consensus settled on the modern system of the arts.8

7 Kristeller, The Modern System of the Arts, Journal of the History of Ideas, xii (1951): 496527, and xiii (1952): 1746. See also Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (Chicago: University Press, 2001). 8 Especially Charles Batteux, Les Beaux arts reduits a un meme principe (Paris, 1746); and ` Denis Diderot, ed., Encyclopedie ou Dictionnaire Raisonne des sciences, des arts, et des metiers (Paris, 1751).


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Several lessons are typically drawn from Kristellers essay. Some note that the concept of art is historically conditioned: it is acquired at a certain time in a certain place and it spreads from there. However, this is neither surprising nor interesting, for many concepts are historically conditioned in this sense. Others go further, concluding that there is no art before the eighteenth century.9 This implies that there is no art at a time unless people have a concept of art at that timea controversial claim.10 (Kristeller holds that art is ancient even if the concept of art is modern.) A third lesson is that the concept of art begins as a theoretical concept. Like the concepts of polymers and logical completeness, it is introduced by means of a theory, indeed a definition. The concept of art and theories of art are equally venerable twins. Easily missed is a fourth lesson, which qualifies the third lesson. True, the concept of art is from the get-go a theoretical concept devised by intellectuals. Kristeller is clear about their goals. They aimed to establish the unity of the artsto make salient a scheme grouping together painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry (and some others). They also sought to identify what sets these arts apart from other activities, especially the sciences and practical arts.11 They hoped to understand the distinctive features of each of the arts.12 Finally, some expected to ground rankings of the arts. This is not at all the project of Bell and his successors. Recent theories of art state what makes any given item a work of art. The early moderns wanted to know what makes any given activity one of the arts. They sought a theory of the arts. To see the difference, consider the form of each. A theory of art completes the schema,item x is a work of art if and only if.

A theory of the arts completes the schema,activity P is an art form if and only if.139 For example, Stephen Davies, Definitions of Art, in Berys Gaut and